By Rabbi Shohama
A long, long time ago there was a man named Yankel who was aggravated beyond belief—and so he went to consult his rabbi.
“Rabbi, he said,” I can’t take it anymore. I work hard to earn a decent wage, and when I come home, there’s such chaos in my house. We only have a one-bedroom house on our little farm, for me and my wife and our three children, and at night I just want a little peace and quiet.”
“Ah,” said the rabbi, “here’s what you must do. You have a goat, right?”
“Yes,” said Yankel.
“And you have a dog,” said the rabbi.
“Yes,” said Yankel.
“And you have some chickens,” said the rabbi.
“Yes,” said Yankel.
“Good,” said the rabbi. “Now bring them all inside your house, and come back to me in three days.”
So Yankel went home and brought in the goat, the dog, and the chickens. After three days he returned to the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, life is impossible! I can’t get a moments peace at home between the children and the animals.”
“Hmm,” said the rabbi, stroking his beard. “Here’s what you must do. Go home and put out the goat, the dog, and the chickens. Then come back to me in two days.”
Yankel went home and did as he was told. In two days he came back the to rabbi and said, “Rabbi, it’s amazing. My house is so nice now with only my wife and children. Thank you so much for your advice.”
I was reminded of this story recently as Hurricane Irma was approaching and I checked in on one of my good friends in Sarasota, Florida, where the hurricane was heading.
Hi Rivkah, I texted, “Where are you and are you OK?”
“Fine,” she texted back. “I’m holed up in my office— with five cats, two dogs, one bird, 2 baby boomers, three millenials, and a 95 year-old grandma. It’s our own sweet little family shelter. Thank God we are in a sturdy concrete building with a strong roof.”
Do you get the difference? In the first story Yankel is miserable because he’s focusing on what’s aggravating. It takes making his life more crowded and noisy for him to appreciate what he had all along. In the second story, Rivkah views her over-crowded and noisy situation with a strong sense of appreciation. Despite worry about her home and community, her main sense is of shalom— a sense of peace and wholeness, and gratitude that she and her loved ones are safe.
This is not to say we don’t naturally feel anxiety, even terror, when serious illness strikes, or life-threatening situations like hurricanes or threat of war. When larger threats are absent many of us find our minds worrying about more personal issues—relationships, jobs, money. For all of these issues, spiritual practices are important tools, but we need to act as well. Rivkah didn’t just pray for safety; she gathered her extended family, left her home, and moved to a safer space. We should and indeed we must act on behalf of ourselves and others.
But how do we stay afloat, so to speak, when the waters feel so turbulent that we can’t focus on what to do for the highest good? When the storms rage inside us as well as outside? It is no wonder that one of the main prayers in Judaism is for shalom—peace. The reason people say “Shalom” as a form of hello and goodbye is that it is a prayer for peace; it is not a simple hello or good bye. Peace is a complex concept; it may mean momentary lack of tension or turmoil, but in the affirmative it includes contentment, wholeness, and fulfillment even while we attend to the inevitable concerns and challenges. Life is always a mixture of the up and the down.
While it is important to acknowledge all of our feelings, happy, sad, angry, Jewish tradition lists hakarat hatov, an attitude of gratitude, as one of the most important spiritual practices. Earlier in this service we acknowledged many blessings. Thanks for another day of life, for daylight after the night, for being able to see, for having clothes to put on, for being part of this amazing group of people.
Hebrew psalms and prayers focus us on what we can appreciate, while Torah and prophetic readings focus us on the challenges and miracles in our people’s history. Equally as important as our sacred texts is our experience of the now– watching for moments throughout our day that bring us wonder, or joy, or just appreciation for things like arriving home safely, or having food to put on our table. The more frequently we can feel gratitude or wonder, the more it will build our overall sense of shalom.
Our Torah reading this morning focused us on wonder and appreciation at the birth of the Jewish people, more than 3,000 years ago. God promises Abraham and Sarah a son so that the Jewish religion that she and Abraham have begun will continue. But at an advanced age, well beyond her child-bearing years, she is still barren. At age 90 Sarah gives birth to Isaac. We can imagine that with his birth she feels many emotions, but overall a sense of shalom, of wholeness and fulfillment.
We also heard the story of Hagar who so feared that her son would die of thirst that she closed her eyes. This addresses the issue of what do we do when times get hard and we have trouble finding the good? How do we be real? It took an angel calling to Hagar and God to open her eyes before she could see the well of water in front of her. Perhaps then she felt a sense of shalom, of gratitude and peace. When we are tempted to close our eyes to trouble we may need instead to look at what we most fear and feel gratitude that it has not yet happened. Perhaps we need a trusted friend to be our angel and help us reach out to God or other sources of help. With support, shalom is never beyond our reach
This concept, shalom, is our theme word for this year’s Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The song we have chosen is based on Psalm 29:11 as set to music by Daphna Rosenberg. Hebrew lends itself to multiple translations, and the version Rabbi David (Markus) wrote that that spoke most to me is “May we have strength to do Your will; May we be blessed with shalom.” Most translations read something like “God will give strength to God’s people and God will bless this people with peace,” which implies that God is the doer and we are just the receivers. My understanding is that God is not only the Source of the blessing of peace, but is the Source that inspires us to work for peace within ourselves and with others. Moreover, God is the Source of a kind of inner peace that comes from feeling cared for and loved.
This song—which we will sing in a few moments and during each High Holiday service, has us make the sounds that comprise the word shalom. Jewish mystics taught that its letters have a special resonance, constructed to balance the energies of fire and water (shin and mem), and heaven and earth (lamed). Shalom, then, is a power word—for its meaning and its vibratory sounds.
When we say or chant shalom, our soul attunes to universal sounds of harmony. When we say or sing shalom it can be an antidote to distress, and a source of comfort. It can put us in a mood where we can see and appreciate the many gifts we do have in our lives. It also can remind us of the areas in our life where shalom feels absent, and motivate us to make changes.
Seeing blessings—feeling shalom. This is a path that will help our new year, 5778, feel like a Shanah Tovah, a good year. May it be so.